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Not Everyone Loves Oprah

On the final day of her talk show, a look at her complicated legacy.

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So After Dr. Oz led the audience through a thorough introduction on the ravages of diabetes, Oprah took viewers to Dayton, Ohio, to meet some black church ladies. Viewers watched as the women served up one of their typical post-service meals of fried chicken and meatloaf, and a table of heavy sides. They’d written to the show about their collective weight issues, Oprah said.

Oprah then staged an intervention and sent the women to a boot camp of sorts to get them motivated about changing their lifestyle. When the video segment was over, Oprah turned to the women, now seated in her studio audience, some dressed in their Sunday finery, and clucked her tongue at them, scolding them for being lazy about exercise and stubborn about their diet. It made me so angry to see these women brought from their homes to be shamed on national television.

It felt especially unfair to see Oprah lay into these women with a simplistic cultural criticism without discussing the structural disparities that shape people of color’s lives. One conversation is not complete without the other.

But hadn’t Oprah detailed her own long struggle with her weight and diet and with taking charge of her health? Hadn’t she partaken in her own game of public self-flagellation, and then redemption through self-acceptance? It’s a story line to which she has returned frequently, an endless recurring cycle that was as irresistible as it was exhausting.

I wince now as I remember the January 2009 cover of O Magazine, when two Oprahs stood side by side, a lean and beaming Oprah from 2005, resting an elbow on a chubbier and disappointed Oprah of 2009. The headline, “How did I let this happen again?” stung. The teaser, “Oprah on her battle with weight: a must-read for anyone who’s fallen off the wagon,” hurt to read.

I felt sad for her, and I felt sad for all the women who look up to her as they struggle to accept themselves in a culture that teaches women to hate themselves. So I felt sad for myself, too. Didn’t Oprah, a brave, powerful woman of color who revolutionized 20th century media, deserve to treat herself with more dignity than that? But then, another question: How much of Oprah’s appeal comes from the fact that she embodies women’s worst insecurities about themselves even as she exhorts women to get over it already ? Does that make her human, or does it make her cynically depraved? I skipped straight to the book reviews in that issue and looked at little else.

My mom owns DVDs of Oprah’s shows, and my sister pounces every time Oprah’s magazine shows up in the mailbox. Save for a couple niche sewing magazines, my mother has subscribed to Oprah’s magazine longer than any other—and it’s still one of the only mainstream titles that consistently runs decent journalism by and about women.

I’ve peeked at a few shows on Oprah’s new network, and sat rapt during the one episode I saw with Maya Angelou on “Master Class,” an hour-long documentary style interview with an accomplished public figure. I also took a voyeuristic interest in “Season 25,” the riveting behind-the-scenes reality show of the making of Oprah’s finale season. If any of you saw that Yosemite camping episode, you know what I’m talking about. After an exhausting day of shooting mishaps out in the woods, Oprah looked at the camera and said something we didn’t see in the actual episode: “I love the outdoors. But black people don’t want to pretend they’re homeless.”

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